Outlook: Lawmakers Buy Time Ahead of New Shutdown Deadline

Congress has until Dec. 21 to avert a partial shutdown as Trump continues to demand billions for his border wall.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Dec. 9, 2018, 8 p.m.

President Trump’s signature Friday on a continuing resolution to fund the Homeland Security Department and other agencies threatens to extend the congressional lame-duck session right up until Christmas weekend.

With a border-security-funding deadline now slated for Dec. 21, Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are scheduled to meet with Trump on Tuesday in hopes of hammering out their multimillion-dollar difference on the funding question. Trump continues to demand $5 billion in border-security funding, while Democrats are holding firm to a maximum of $1.6 billion.

In the meantime, the Senate will take up a procedural vote Monday on Justin Muzinich’s nomination to be deputy Treasury secretary, which Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden had held up until last week after it narrowly passed out of committee in August. Muzinich, a counselor to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, would continue to advise Mnuchin on implementation of the federal tax overhaul passed last year.

Congressional leadership also hopes to pass a farm bill before a crucial December deadline, and senators continue to push for votes on a bill to reform the criminal-justice system, as well as a resolution to end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in the conflict in Yemen.

Here’s what else is on tap this week:

DEFENSE AND FOREIGN POLICY

Lawmakers will keep the spotlight on Saudi Arabia this week, with the Senate preparing to rebuke the Trump administration over its support for the Kingdom following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Senators will likely vote this week on a resolution calling for an end to U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, but it’s expected to serve as little more than a symbolic signal to the White House.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker is also angling for his committee to take action this week on two measures related to the Kingdom, potentially looking to sanction those responsible for Khashoggi’s killing and to formally condemn Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for both his role in the murder and for his country's human rights abuses.

In the House, meanwhile, Pelosi said Trump administration officials will hold a closed-door briefing for some members this week on Khashoggi’s murder, as well as on U.S. assistance to the offensive in Yemen.

On Wednesday morning, the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee will hear from outside experts on the implications of China’s presence and investment in Africa. At the same time, the subcommittees on Seapower and Readiness and Management Support will hold a hearing that was rescheduled from last week on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps readiness, with top Navy and USMC officials.

The House Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee will also make up a hearing that was postponed last week, gathering Tuesday afternoon to examine the Pentagon’s artificial-intelligence structure, investments, and applications. Lisa Porter, deputy Defense undersecretary for research and engineering, and Dana Deasy, the DoD’s chief information officer, will testify.

On Wednesday afternoon, HASC’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will hear a status report from top officials on security-clearance processing. The massive delays in authorizing federal employees, applicants, and contractors to handle classified information has long been a problem, although some modest progress has been made in reducing the backlog this year.

The House Foreign Affairs Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations Subcommittee on Monday afternoon will hold its rescheduled hearing on international child abductions, and on Thursday afternoon the subpanel gathers to discuss Nigeria’s upcoming 2019 elections. On Wednesday morning, the full committee meets for a hearing on promoting U.S. interests in Africa.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

Lawmakers will continue to negotiate a rider on the looming year-end spending bill that would fund the controversy-laden Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste-disposal site. House members are putting together language that would finance the licensing process for the site, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, the top Senate appropriator for nuclear issues, is expressing interest in the proposal.

A breakthrough in the logjam over Yucca Mountain, a remote Nevada site roughly 100 miles from Las Vegas, has eluded lawmakers for years. But Sen. Dean Heller’s loss in the Nevada Senate race this election cycle removed a critical constraint on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Cross-Capitol negotiations will also resume on controversial funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department. The House bargaining position is chock full of riders on Endangered Species Act restrictions and emissions regulations. Appropriators say those funding negotiations could be resolved if there is agreement reached on border-wall funding.

Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Environment Subcommittee will hold a hearing this week on legislation that would overhaul the ethanol-blending mandate known as the Renewable Fuel Standard. The subcommittee cancelled the hearing last week because of the funeral ceremonies for President George H.W. Bush.

Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus released draft legislation in mid-November to sunset the corn-based ethanol mandate in 2023 but require vehicle manufacturers to sell cars with a higher-octane level, which is typically achieved through ethanol blending. Shimkus will hold a hearing on the bill this Wednesday.

HEALTH

The comment period for the DHS’s proposal to expand the definition of who is considered a “public charge,” which would make it harder for legal immigrants to obtain green cards or permanent residency status, ends Monday. The Trump administration wants to make an immigrant’s use or potential use of noncash benefits, including Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a factor if they try to enter the U.S. or become a permanent resident. Stakeholders have warned about the “chilling effect” this rule would have on enrollment of safety-net services.

“Even before this rule was formally announced, states across the country saw decreases in enrollment in Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) amounting to as much as 20 percent, and state agency officials attribute much of this decline to fears about this immigration policy,” wrote a group of Democratic senators in October.

Due to the services for George H.W. Bush, health-related hearings from last week were pushed into this week.

On Tuesday, the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee will hold its fourth hearing on the implementation of the 21st Century Cures Act, this time focusing on the interoperability of electronic health records, provisions related to information blocking, and the establishment of a Trusted Exchange Framework.

The next day, the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will have a hearing on the availability of Sexual Assault Forensic Exams and sexual-assault nurse examiners at hospitals. Only 15 percent of hospitals in the U.S. provide SAFE kits, according to data from the International Association of Forensic Nurses.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Health Care and Government Operations subcommittees will look at alternatives to fetal-tissue research in a hearing Thursday. The Health and Human Services Department launched a review in September of all research involving fetal tissue “in light of the serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved.”

TAXES & TRADE

Outgoing House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady’s swan-song legislation may be dead in the water. House leaders pulled a vote on the measure two weeks ago amid problems rounding up enough votes, including pushback from conservatives, and they haven’t scheduled a new vote since.

Now, senators are working on a pared-down version of the legislation that would renew only the temporary tax breaks known as extenders and perhaps include some retirement provisions. That package would ride along a government-funding bill that lawmakers need to pass by Dec. 21.

“It’s one of the ways; it’s certainly probably the best way,” Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch said Thursday, of the plan to attach the tax legislation to the funding bill.

That move would exclude the technical corrections to last year’s tax bill included in Brady’s proposal as well as an administrative overhaul of the IRS. Democrats have sought concessions for approving the technical corrections.

“I think we’ve got a good chance,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, who will likely take the Finance gavel next year. “Not to get all of the House package—there’s some absolutely the Democrats won’t go along with—but I think there is enough bipartisan support on parts of it.”

The Finance Committee on Tuesday will hold its rescheduled hearing on the nomination of Courtney Dunbar Jones for a five-year term to the U.S. Tax Court.

On trade, following a steep stock sell-off last week in part over fears of an escalating trade war with China, the complications keep coming. The U.S. trade deficit with China hit a decade-high of $55.5 billion in October, the Commerce Department reported Thursday, and the arrest in Canada of Huawei’s chief financial officer for allegedly violating U.S. sanctions on Iran added a new challenge to tariff negotiations between the world’s two largest economies.

White House trade officials delivered conflicting updates Friday on the 90-day deadline for the U.S. and China to arrive at a trade deal before the U.S. increases its tariffs. White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC that the president may extend the deadline if talks are progressing, though later, trade policy adviser Peter Navarro said that if there was no deal by the deadline, tariffs on many Chinese imports would jump to 25 percent.

TECHNOLOGY

It’s take two this week for a slew of tech events postponed last week due to the Bush funeral. At the top of the list is the House Judiciary Committee’s planned Tuesday meeting with Google chief executive Sundar Pichai. Lawmakers will needle Pichai about alleged anti-conservative bias on the platform, and will likely question Google’s plans to move into China through a search app compliant with that country’s strict censorship and surveillance laws.

Other rescheduled meetings include an antitrust-oversight hearing now slated for Wednesday at the House Judiciary Committee, a Senate Judiciary meeting on Wednesday to examine the differences in competition law between the U.S. and the EU, and a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Tuesday that will review the impact of the Ray Baum’s Act, a sweeping telecommunications bill passed earlier this year.

The Federal Communications Commission meets Wednesday for its monthly open meeting, and some lawmakers are already crying foul over the commission’s plan to reclassify text messages as an “information service.” That would take text messaging largely outside of the commission’s purview and conceivably allow mobile carriers to block, slow, or prioritize text messages. Last Friday a group of 10 Democratic and independent senators sent a letter to the FCC blasting the plan.

The Federal Trade Commission will hold a two-day hearing starting Tuesday on data security and the commission’s efforts to hold companies accountable for their missteps in that space. The FTC will likely take on a greater role in enforcing data security should Congress pass a privacy law next cycle, but some lawmakers have questioned whether the commission is up to the challenge. One stated goal of the hearing is to highlight the FTC’s current data-security-enforcement program.

The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on Tuesday to examine the Pentagon’s use of artificial-intelligence technologies.

WHITE HOUSE

Trump will meet on Tuesday with Schumer and Pelosi to discuss the year-end spending deal. On Wednesday, he will hold an event to call attention to his program aiming tax breaks at economically distressed neighborhoods to spur investment. On Thursday, he will have talks with some governors-elect.

Mackenzie Weinger, Brian Dabbs, Erin Durkin, Casey Wooten, Brendan Bordelon and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.
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